Wheelchair engineer Salim Nasser, at the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Kennedy Space Center, has come up with Rowheels – a wheel that will reinvent how wheelchairs work. The Rowheel requires a wheelchair user to pull rather than push the wheels.
The majority of wheelchair users will experience shoulder pains or require shoulder surgery at some point during their life. By pulling in a rowing motion, instead of pushing, wheelchair users reduce their chances of injury. It’s also claimed that Rowheels will improve posture.
Nasser became a quadriplegic after a car accident in 1998. Although he makes use of a motorised wheelchair, he was made aware of the challenges of operating a manual wheelchair by his friends and physical therapists. Nasser dreamt up Rowheels for a senior design project in 2004 while at engineering school. The wheels use a gear system to propel the chair forward, while the wheelchair user pulls back. By 2014, these innovative wheels were introduced in the United States.
In an interview with Curiosity, a news website, Nasser notes: “When people in manual chairs push their wheelchair, their chest muscles and the front muscles of their shoulders do all the work. These muscles in the front get stronger, tighter and shorter. In the back the muscles get looser and weak. The shoulder joint gets out of balance and the wheelchair user is exposed to something called impingement.
“The same thing happens to body builders who focus on bench presses but neglect their upper back. Their shoulders get pulled out of whack and put in a position where you can pinch your rotator cuff. In a wheelchair, you push 2 000 to 3 000 times a day. That’s about a million times a year that you could be pinching your rotator cuff. People start developing pain and injury that can be so bad that they have to go to a power chair.”
He points out that moving to a powered wheelchair only weakens the muscles, as the wheelchair user is then not as active. This would make simple tasks of picking up objects more difficult.
When asked why no-one else thought of this simple solution, he replies: “If I wasn’t in a chair, I would never have thought of this. It’s about perspective and understanding where people are coming from. I’m not in a manual chair, but I have been exposed to the issues. Of course, when I’ve told physical therapists or other engineers about it, they say: ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”
Here is how Rowheels work: